When I named The Estate as this month’s “Redemption Reel,” I may have oversold things. Reading it over again, in three paragraphs it might seem like I was pre-endorsing the film as one of the great comedies of the year, and if that’s how it came off, I apologize. Mostly I was just delighted to see a trailer that was truly funny, and intentionally so, which has been exceedingly rare this year.
This doesn’t mean I’m going back on my enthusiasm. It’s more an admission that I should have tempered things a bit. I say often that a movie should be judged – at least partially – on its intent relative to its quality, and The Estate is a prime example. It currently sits at a dismal 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, with may critics blasting its crude humor and using several beloved actors in assholic roles. To which I reply… ahem…
THAT’S THE ENTIRE FUCKING POINT!
This movie was never meant to be some grand comedic statement, or vie for awards. The only purpose is to have a fun farce with a likeable cast playing against type, eliciting base laughs out of their universally terrible behavior. And in that respect, it succeeds. This isn’t supposed to be high art, and it doesn’t reach for anything beyond entry-level absurdist shtick. The only potential meta commentary is in the slight fantasy of Donald Trump’s kids acting in a similarly horrid fashion when the universe finally decides to bless us with his painful death (and given this movie’s conclusion, hopefully the same results).
That’s it. The reason I gave this movie “Redemption Reel” status was because the trailer – be it Green or Red Band – told us exactly what we could expect, and if you laughed at it, you’d probably enjoy it. In many ways that’s refreshingly honest. And with that knowledge, I went in completely relaxed and ready to have a nice time. And that’s precisely what happened.
As I previously mentioned, part of the fun is that everyone is a piece of shit, which allows the audience to just sit back and giggle, and the film delivers on that promise. The closest thing you get to a “good” character is Macey, played by Toni Collette, and even then, her conscience basically ends at her ability to be the one person to point out how fucked up everybody’s respective scheme is. She’s counterbalanced by her sister Savannah (Anna Faris), who is delightfully over-the-top in her commitment to the increasingly bonkers plotting. The pair run a café in New Orleans that has fallen on hard times since the death of their father. When they’re informed that their wealthy Aunt Hilda (Kathleen Turner) is dying of cancer, Savannah convinces Macey that they should attend to her in her final hours in hopes that some last-minute kindness might lead to Hilda changing her will to leave her wealth to them so they can save their business.
Feeling they have the upper hand because they both live a short drive from Hilda, the two are shocked to discover upon their arrival that their cousin Beatrice (Rosemarie DeWitt) has already beaten them to the punch, having flown in from New York with her husband James (Ron Livingston). Before long, their other cousin Richard (David Duchovny) arrives from Florida, both he and Beatrice apparently having played a very long game of pretending to be nice to Hilda for this very purpose. This beggars belief in the real world, but within the already established silliness of this film’s stakes, it does make a modicum of sense.
The shenanigans continually rise in complication and contrivance, and honestly it would all seem incredibly stupid if the cast wasn’t selling every second of it as if it’s 100% plausible. Macey and Savannah essentially kidnap Hilda in an attempt to have her reconcile with another family member. Richard one-ups everyone in the gift department at every possible opportunity. Beatrice tries to literally convince James to have sex with Hilda when the latter reminisces about a high school crush and laments that she’ll never get laid again. Macey and Savannah even find said crush (Danny Vinson), bribing him to romance Hilda one last time, only for the plan to backfire, necessitating an attempted honeypot scheme with their half-sister Ellen (Keyla Monterroso Mejia).
All of this nonsense works because the cast is fully committed to the folly, playing their characters to the extremes of cartoonish avarice. Seriously, Mr. Burns could take lessons. No matter how absurd or downright criminal an idea might be, everyone is on board so long as it gives them a leg up on one another or leads to them getting a share of the inheritance. This even carries over to side plots and bits of character development, with Savannah ready to verbally tear anyone apart with only the slightest encouragement (including backhanded compliments to Macey), Beatrice gleefully jumping into any patently evil plot she devises, and Richard pulling double duty as a complete idiot tech bro with a strangely incestuous libido. The completely nutty nature is the point, like something akin to Clue, and every member of the ensemble goes for the gusto.
None do it better than Turner herself. As the crotchety, joyless Hilda, she gets all the best one-liners, and her delivery is on point throughout. From her opening scene where she greets Macey and Savannah’s disingenuous visit by having them change her colostomy bag – proving in figurative and literal terms that she’s the biggest shitbag of them all – to the physical comedy she executes with aplomb, to her matter-of-fact final words, every second that Kathleen Turner is on screen is a moment of pure idiotic bliss. When I railed against Ticket to Paradise as “The Worst Trailer in the World,” I made mention that such a film could only succeed based on the audience’s affections for George Clooney and Julia Roberts, knowing that we love the actors and could thus root for them to have a happy ending while they play objectively bad characters. Here, the fun is in watching actors who are just as well known for their positive attributes ALL playing assholes, with none of them even attempting a redemptive turnaround, and it works because a) everyone’s in on the bit, and b) if these terrible people existed in real life, there’s no way in hell they’d ever have a miraculous ethical turnaround, so the film doesn’t even pretend to hint that such a thing will happen. Everyone has their moments, but Turner tops them all, though Duchovny does give her a run for her money every once in a while.
Now, again, this was never made to be some all-time classic, or really even be taken seriously, and it’s important to keep that in mind if you watch it. There are myriad flaws, even within the intentionally asinine framework. The film opens with a cheeky animated sequence that shows all the cousins being friendly as children and playing games at Hilda’s place, a house they apparently enjoyed. Macey even mentions that they all used to be so close, but despite all their bad behavior, there’s never a concrete reason that they all fell out in the first place to provide the motivation for the inheritance position jockeying. Macey has a steady boyfriend (Gichi Gamba), but he’s mostly just there in a vain attempt to further humanize her character, and all of his scenes involve him living up to some overly emotional beta male clichés. In a weird way he’s the most grounded character, and therefore the least believable. Despite the relatively brisk 96-minute runtime, there are a few scenes where the film noticeably drags. The early joke about the lascivious Richard preferring to be called “Dick” is honestly too easy and lame for even a movie like this. Savannah’s subplot running gag mocking Ellen and her affinity for “Dungeons & Dragons” pays very few dividends.
The other day, my roommate suggested that I alter my rating system on this blog, to in essence split reviews into their quality as a “movie” versus being a “film.” I don’t really plan on doing that, but The Estate would make for a good test case for that theory. As a “film,” this is probably as terrible as much of the critical reaction would indicate. It’s a trifle, with sophomoric humor starring a cadre of great actors playing one-note jerk roles. If it was trying to be something grand, it failed miserably. But as a “movie,” meaning a pleasant distraction where you can turn off your brain and just chuckle, then it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. When I saw it, there wasn’t much of a crowd in the theatre, but everyone was laughing pretty much the whole way. That’s all it’s aiming for, and it delivers exactly that.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you have relatives as horrible as these people? Is Kathleen Turner even better in old age than when she was a sex symbol? Let me know!